Biography typically seeks to fashion a unified story out of the life of its subject. But biographers hoping to shape a seamless narrative of Thomas Hardy face one large and unavoidable challenge: His career as a writer seems to be split in two. There is Hardy the novelist, the famous Hardy, author of Far from the Madding Crowd and Tess of the d'Urbervilles, creator and chronicler of Wessex, the Last Victorian, who existed between about 1870 and 1895. Then there is Hardy the poet, who lived always within the other Hardy but emerged as the dominant figure only on the novelist's abandonment of fiction after Jude the Obscure, five years before the end of the nineteenth century. This second Hardy quite remarkably wrote verse right up until his death in 1928, at age eighty-eight. It may be true, as many have claimed, that no other English writer can truly be called both a major novelist and a major poet. It is also true that no other English writer presents a career so notably and neatly divided into chronological halves.

In scholarship and biography—not to mention general readership—the emphasis has always fallen on Hardy the novelist. It is still the fiction that most readers know, even if in the last two decades Hardy's verse has garnered more critical attention and publication than before, thanks in part to the enthusiasm of readers like Philip Larkin. Claire Tomalin's new biography, Thomas Hardy, clearly seeks to correct the remaining asymmetry. She makes the interesting decision to start not at the beginning, with Hardy's birth in 1840 to obscure parents in an obscure corner of Dorset, but (in her prologue) with Hardy the grieving widower-poet of 1912. His first wife, Emma, has just died, and we meet him as he is about to compose his astonishing elegiac poems of 1912-13.

Tomalin's premise is unambiguous: "This is the moment when Thomas Hardy became a great poet." Though her formulation is somewhat oversimplified—there is greatness throughout his earlier verse, too—she is mostly persuasive. Hardy's poems about Emma from these years do represent the densest concentration of his poetic genius. But this "moment" is as much Tomalin's as Hardy's, for it marks the fulcrum of her own book. More than three hundred pages later, after taking us from 1840 to 1912, her narrative circles back to this instant, as if to suggest that all these pages have in effect been the real prologue—that the majority of Hardy's life and career has served as a sort of apprenticeship for the real literary task before him, which is the plaintive and ultimately valedictory poetry of his final years.

The choice to begin with Emma's death announces another defining tendency of Tomalin's biography. This is going to be a book largely about the women in Hardy's life. Hardy scholars have long been interested in his two wives and other love interests, since his fiction and poetry both bear the unmistakable marks they left. Still, it would be difficult to find a better composite picture than Tomalin's of the psychological and amorous complexities of Hardy's relationships. The longest and most fraught of these was with Emma, whom he wed in 1874 and with whom he quickly fell into a marriage of tensions, silences, and resentments.

Tomalin's point is that for many decades, Hardy felt, at best, ambivalence toward his wife; then, upon her death, he mourned her absence and wrote his finest poetry out of that mourning. In her memoirs, Emma calls herself a "mine" for her husband; Tomalin skillfully juxtaposes the poetry and the life to illustrate how Hardy quarried his material from that source. But this biography also paints a vivid picture of Hardy's second wife, Florence Dugdale, who maintained a weird friendship with Emma (Hardy was close to Florence while Emma was still alive) but who after Emma's death labored to efface her as much as possible from Hardy's affections and the historical record. The two wives are not the only women to figure prominently here. Hardy's presumed first love, his cousin Tryphena Sparks; his mother, Jemima; and his important friend and correspondent Florence Henniker, whom he also loved, are also essential to the story Tomalin is telling.

But this biography's focus on the people in Hardy's life—these women most of all, but also the few close friends whom the intensely private Hardy kept—is enlisted to greater effect for creating a portrait of Hardy the man, his brooding and his yearning, than for illuminating his writings. You begin to wonder sometimes whether Tomalin's emphasis on these relationships detracts from other factors that also crucially shaped Hardy's masterpieces of fiction and verse. In this light, it's hard not to compare her book with the most comprehensive and authoritative Hardy biography to date, Michael Millgate's Thomas Hardy: A Biography, first published in 1982. The comparison is even more inevitable thanks to the republication of Millgate's study, in 2004, as Thomas Hardy: A Biography Revisited. The revised book is fuller than the original, informed by newly available letters and records, especially from the first and last years of Hardy's life. Millgate takes a more faceted approach in linking Hardy's experiences—his connection to other writers, his engagement with late- Victorian thought and society, his intellectual formation—to his writings. One revealing point of comparison between the two biographies is their sections dealing with the composition, publication, and reception of Jude the Obscure, from roughly 1892 to 1896. This is the most significant period of Hardy's career. His furious last novel marked the height of his powers as a fiction writer, his strongest enmity toward the press and the critics, his most explicit feud with organized Christianity, and his greatest financial success, not to mention his abandonment of fiction for poetry. No other English novelist has so momentously renounced fiction; Hardy did so at the apex of his fame. This is extraordinarily rich terrain for the historian or the biographer, and Millgate does a better job than Tomalin of describing how Jude was forged and how it exploded on late-Victorian society. Details of composition—the changing title, character names, and plot design—explain a lot about the final novel, and the story of the extraordinary public response to a book many considered heretical tell us as much about the English reading public in 1895 as about the writer at such odds with that culture.

Tomalin's version pays much less attention to such questions of craft and influence, at least for the fiction. Nor does it offer the panorama of Victorian and Edwardian critical and literary life that Millgate paints so meticulously. To be fair, this is in part a result of length—the Millgate biography is 128 pages longer than the Tomalin. But the trouble remains that Tomalin doesn't quite give us Hardy the intellectual: the man, yes, and the husband, and certainly the poet. But Hardy, no less than his contemporaries James and Conrad, was formed by the philosophy and literature of his era; he read widely; and—James's pompous slur "good little Thomas Hardy" notwithstanding—he was a thinker of great complexity and dark subtlety. Tomalin's biography acknowledges all this but doesn't adequately dramatize it. The various subterfuges and obstacles that Hardy threw up around himself, his many acts of reticence and caginess—his burning of letters, his reluctance to speak publicly on political and social topics—Tomalin enlists mostly as signs of personal privacy (which they were) and not as the calculated parries of an elusive writer wanting nothing to interfere with the integrity of his published work (which they were as well). Tomalin captures Hardy's strangely oblique confessional mode but understates his reach as interpreter and prophet. And so her book lacks the same balance of private experience and intellectual engagement that defined her excellent 2002 biography of Samuel Pepys.

In any Hardy biography, the crux of the philosophical or intellectual inquiry has to be the question of how the novelist and poet developed what Tomalin calls his "black view of life." Her answer is explicit and twofold: Hardy was subjected from a young age to humiliations of class and urban snobbery, and "he never got over his own loss of Christian belief." The first is social, the second metaphysical; both were essential to Hardy's formation, though Tomalin spends more time evaluating the former, what might be called the ressentiment brought on by the poverty and sense of inferiority from childhood that he perhaps never overcame, even as a famous and rich writer. Even in his late poetry, so largely devoted to elegy and remembrance, Hardy never lost the acrid antagonism that fueled his 1890s novels, Tess and Jude. He was still dictating poems from his deathbed in January 1928, but instead of verses of love and memory, they were rude imagined epitaphs for George Moore and G. K. Chesterton, two contemporaries who had long insulted his writing as crude and blasphemous and whom he was still felling with his pen even as he drifted into unconsciousness.

Aaron Matz teaches in the College of Letters at Wesleyan University.